• Dan Connors

Covid Mental Health Challenge #3- Mental Illnesses- an overview

Updated: Dec 2, 2020


There are many forms of mental illness, and each one has its own unique symptoms and challenges. The big problem with mental dysfunctions is that there are few easy, clinical tests that can diagnose every one of them. Blood tests and brain scans can tell a lot about physical health, but the causes of mental health remains a mystery. Many people with mental illnesses never seek treatment and thus never get diagnosed. (Over 60% of those with anxiety disorder never get treated). Some people end up being diagnosed with two or more unique illnesses, making treatment that much harder. To diagnose most mental illnesses still requires observations of behavior, and interviews with the people experiencing them.


Mental illness is defined by Webster's as "any of a broad range of medical conditions that are marked primarily by sufficient disorganization of personality, mind, or emotions to impair normal psychological functioning, and cause marked distress or disability and that are typically associated with a disruption in normal thinking, feeling, mood, behavior, interpersonal interactions, or daily functioning." That definition covers a lot of ground, especially when you throw in the fact that symptoms can be mild to severe, in which case 99% of Americans are likely to experience at least the mild version of one of them at some point in their lives.*

*(This is an anecdotal observation not backed up by by any science, but if you know someone who's never had even mild symptoms, keep them in your life)


The main authority for diagnosing mental illnesses is the DSM-5, a diagnostic tool from the American Psychiatric Association. There are 157 recognized disorders in the DSM-5, and there's no way we can cover them here, but I will try to highlight the main ones. Some of the most debilitating and well-known ones like delusions, psychosis, amnesia, and dual personality disorder are thankfully rare and we will ignore for now.


In pursuit of mental fitness, we have to acknowledge the most common dangers and illnesses that threaten us, and here is a partial list of some of the worst ones.


1- Anxiety disorder. This is the most common of all mental illnesses and one of the most destructive. It is estimated that some 18% of Americans suffer from a form of this disorder. While it's common to have anxiety in some situations, people with anxiety disorder have it all the time. It can include intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about situations that aren't in and of themselves dangerous. This can include generalized anxiety about life, or intense phobias about one specific stimulus (heights, spiders, airplanes, snakes, social gatherings, or enclosed spaces) Left unchecked, anxiety disorder can profoundly effect lifestyles, making avoidance of fear producers a prime directive. At their worst they can produce panic attacks that can completely immobilize a person.


2- Addiction disorder. Addictive substances can completely destroy lives when the desire for them overrules all other mental processes. Approximately 10% of Americans have this disorder, though I think that estimate could be low when you consider all the things we can get addicted to. This includes addictions to consumption of things like alcohol, drugs, opioids, tobacco, and food. Anything that can give the brain a quick shot of dopamine can potentially cause an addiction, and that includes such diverse activities as sex, gambling, video games, and even social media. While enjoying any of these activities can be safe and enjoyable, addictive behavior takes them a step too far. The activity stops being enjoyable and the hunt for the next "fix" becomes all-consuming. An easy test to see if you're addicted to something is to drop it cold turkey. If you experience physical or emotional withdrawal symptoms that become unbearable- you're addicted.


3- Depression. This is a mood disorder that affects at least 7% of Americans enough to disrupt their lives. There are several forms of depression, the most common of which is major depressive disorder- usually tied to a recent traumatic event. Persistent depressive disorder is rarer and lasts much longer, and can be caused by biological and chemical imbalances. Also fairly common are post-partum depression, that affects new mothers, and bipolar disease, that alternates periods of deep sadness with moments of intense energy. Those who experience depression report feeling sad, lost, and hopeless, and this disease can lead to suicidal thoughts, which makes it potentially deadly.

Depression has a host of symptoms, including:

  • Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness

  • Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters

  • Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as sex, hobbies or sports

  • Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much

  • Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort

  • Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain

  • Anxiety, agitation or restlessness

  • Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements

  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame

  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things

  • Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide

  • Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches*

*( From Mayo Clinic)


4- Post-traumatic stress disorder. (PTSD) According to the National Institutes of Health, about 4% of Americans suffer from PTSD in a given year, with women much more likely to suffer than men. This disorder is similar to depression in many ways, as people lose interest in life and withdraw from it. What distinguishes PTSD is that there is always a traumatic event that precedes it, and memories of that event can haunt people for years. Soldiers are often victims because of what they witness in wartime, but anyone who is involved in a violent, sudden, traumatic events, such as rape, robbery, or death can be so traumatized that the incident is burned into their minds. They re-live the events repeatedly trying to figure out if they helped caused them or could have handled them differently.


These are the big four maladies of mental illness, but there are 153 more besides them. Here are six more we will look at later.


5- Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder- (ADHD). The cause of inabilities to focus in the classroom, this is estimated to afflict from 5 to 10% of all children. (Some believe it is over-diagnosed.

6- Schizophrenia. This disorder interferes with the ability to think clearly and deal with the world. It is characterized by delusions, hallucinations, being emotionally flat, and memory and concentration problems. causes chaos in some lives, including delusions and hallucinations in some cases. About .25-.65% of Americans have this diagnosis.

7- Dementia and Alzheimers. Though technically diseases and not disorders, they cause havoc with memories and affect some 6% of all people over the age of 60.

8- Autism Spectrum Disorder. This growing concern causes victims to have repetitive, limited movement, flat emotionless voices, and great difficulty in socializing. About 1.8% of children have this disorder today.

9- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. This is a mental illness that causes people to become obsessed with minor details and compulsive about correcting them. This can include things like dirt, germs, or clutter, which most of us can tolerate but others can't stand being around.

10- Eating disorders. These include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. Around 1% of Americans have this disorder at any one time, (while 40% of Americans are now classified as obese). This disorder revolves around unhealthy beliefs about food, eating, and weight, and includes starvation (anorexia), vomiting (bulimia) or gorging (binging).

11- Borderline Personality Disorder. People with this condition have difficulties regulating emotions. They feel emotions more intensely and for longer periods of time than the rest of us, and it's harder for them to return to baseline levels of happiness. An estimated 1.4% of Americans have BPD.

12- Dissociative disorders. This disorder is often accompanied by involuntary escapes from reality- a disconnection from the former self. This includes things like amnesia, multiple personalities, or detachment from feelings. Often caused by traumatic experiences, this disorder can completely change personalities as memories and feelings are temporarily lost.



Reading through the list of disorders of the mind can be numbing and frustrating, because each of them must be overcome before true mental fitness can be attained. Women get the short end of biology here as they are more likely to experience most of these than men. Americans for some reason tend to have higher prevalence of mental illnesses- either because our country is too stressful or because our diagnostics are better.


The good news is that all of these diseases can be treated and greatly improved with either medicine, therapy, or both. The first step is just recognizing the problem, and the second step is reaching out for help. Some of the best places to get help are linked below.


National Institutes for Mental Health (NIMH)

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA)


For the rest of this challenge we will look at these and other disorders only as temporary roadblocks. The ultimate goal is mental health, which Websters defines as "the condition of being sound mentally and emotionally that is characterized by the absence of mental illness and by adequate adjustment especially as reflected in feeling comfortable about oneself, positive feelings about others, and the ability to meet the demands of daily life." I would modify that definition to say that mental health doesn't mean the absence of mental illness, but the awareness of and management of mental illnesses so that their impact on our life is minimal.


If you're bored some night you might want to read about all 157 illnesses and may see someone you know there. In the interests of time we'll only cover the main ones. We all deserve to live a positive, happy, joyful life and that's what mental (and emotional and spiritual) health is all about.


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The above information is provided courtesy of the author who has done his best to be factual. You are still responsible for interpreting and checking those facts elsewhere, and I make no representations that I am a mental health expert beyond what I presented. Thank you.

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